Like a Czech Film

Madeleine Albright, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948, HarperCollins 2012

Only rarely does the intensity of personal memory coincide with an epic sweep of history, but the life of Madeleine Albright is one of those exceptional cases. Back in 1997, just after she had been nominated as the first female U.S. Secretary of State, the Washington Post revealed that Albright, despite being raised a Catholic and married to an Episcopalian, actually came from a Jewish background, and that most of her extended family had been killed by the Nazis as part of their “final solution”.

Albright has dealt with this sudden discovery in previous memoirs, particularly about why her parents, who had fled to the United States in 1948, had not told her the truth about her Jewish heritage while they were alive. But Prague Winter is not a holocaust study, nor a kaddish for the dead, nor more soul-searching about her parent’s conversion—though it has elements of all three. Albright combines family records, personal reminiscence and newly discovered documents to create a vivid picture of the birth and death of that now vanished country, Czechoslovakia, and from that evinces some of her diplomatic insight into the various factors at play in Washington, London, Berlin and Prague.

Much of the book is a useful and up-to-date primer on the political machinations around the fate of Albright’s mother country from the Munich agreement of 1938 to the Communist putsch of 1948. It’s a compelling, often tragic, sometimes magical story, as befitting Albright’s fascination with Bohemian fairy-tales when she was a girl, “a blend of rousing adventures, epic quests, magic swords, and inventive explanations concerning the origin of things,” as she describes it, which soon became confused with reality. Some of the more surreal moments, such as the revelation that Franz Kafka was largely behind the adoption of the safety helmet in European building construction, explain why the Polish still describe bizarre situations as “jak w czeskim filmie”—like a Czech film.

Albright was born Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague in 1937, a couple of months before the death of Tomáš Masaryk, the founding figure of Czechoslovak independence. The son of a Catholic Slovak coachman, an early feminist and opponent of anti-Semitism, Masaryk wanted the new country to eschew the rampant religious and ethnic exceptionalism breeding elsewhere. For a brief period he managed to combine patriotic pride with an insistence on tolerance as the basis of a modern democratic state. On their marriage certificate, Albright’s parents were identified as “bez vyznání”—without religious confession.

Rich in natural resources, Czechoslovakia ranked tenth among the world’s industrialized powers by the early thirties, mainly trading with the west based on brands such as Škoda automobiles, Pilsener beer, Prague ham, and Baťa shoes. But the post-imperial legacy of Central Europe, the combination of large German, Hungarian, Jewish and Czech minorities, was soon exploited by the siren calls of blood-and-soil nationalism and fascism. In Czechoslovakia the cries for autonomy and claims of persecution were led by the German Sudeten leader Konrad Henlein, although we now know that he was encouraged by Hitler to make exorbitant demands “that are unacceptable to the government” in order to justify an invasion.

Albright is particularly strong when she describes the desperate shuttle diplomacy between Prague, London, Paris and Berlin in the days after Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria, which left Czechoslovakia encircled. She even gives Neville Chamberlain a fair hearing by re-examining the infamous broadcast when he described the crisis as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing”. The Munich agreement which left Czechoslovakia exposed and undefended was the most shameful episode of British European foreign policy (apart from Bosnia) in the last century and Albright summarises it pithily: “In the end, Munich had three losers: Czechoslovakia, England, and France; it had two winners: Hitler and Stalin. That’s a fair one-sentence summary of a historic disaster.”

However, neither the historian nor the diplomat dominate this book. Because of the personal element—the number of people she personally knew in the unfolding drama— Albright writes like an insightful biographer into the decisions of the historic figures; Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s refusal to stand up for the young republic against Hitler’s demands for Sudeten secession: President Edvard Beneš’s decision not to declare unilateral war against the Nazis: his eventual alliance with the Soviet Union. The eye is sharp but also compassionate.

The historic disaster of Munich soon became personal odyssey for Albright as her father, Josef Körbel, was already a rising-star as the ambassador in Belgrade: two weeks later he fled with his young family to London, where he helped to form the Czechoslovak government in exile, under the leadership of Beneš and Jan Masaryk, the bon-vivant son of Tomáš. Josef’s career follows the tempestuous alliances of the times: supporting the underground resistance movement: the assassination of the SS Protektor Reinhard Heydrich and the terrible retribution in the destruction of the Czech village of Lidice: trying to get British recognition and stirring the U.S. into action. However, Albright’s anecdotes and memories are just as revealing; the irritation with British pragmatism from many of the exiles from central Europe: “Please, O God, give the British all the strength they will need to withstand the beating they deserve.” Or the message found in the casing of an unexploded bomb from Czech factory workers:“Don’t be afraid,” it said, “The bombs we make will never explode.”

After Czechoslovakia’s first open elections in May 1946, Josef Körbel and and his family returned to a diplomatic post in Yugoslavia, and was a first-hand witness of Stalin’s attempt to mould a new Soviet dominated sphere. When Jan Masaryk stayed with the family in Belgrade during a visit, he asked Albright’s mother for a sling for his arm as a form of alibi. “I’ll need it,” he said. “I don’t want to shake hands with Communists.” The Communists would soon take over his country and Masaryk would die in suspicious circumstances, his body found after an apparent fall from a Foreign Ministry window on March 9th, 1948. A century earlier the Thirty Year’s War had been triggered when emissaries from the Habsburg Empire were thrown from the windows of Prague Castle. Jan Masaryk’s defenestration inaugurated the beginning of the Cold War.

“The ten and a half years between the funerals of Masaryk father and son had been marked by war, occupation, renewal, and disintegration; a series of trials and transitions leading—where? In 1937, when the elder man had died, the dream of a democratic and humane Czechoslovakia still lived; now that vision had been distorted into something dark and cold.”

The book ends with Albright and her family seeking asylum in the US and some ruminations about the role of individual choice in cataclysmic world affairs. In Albright’s case, such speculations are not idle or academic. Like Primo Levi in the Drowned and the Saved, Albright doesn’t make any simplistic division between heroes and collaborators, resistance leaders and quislings: most people survive in a grey zone where the “what-ifs” of unintended consequences are hard to measure, and impossible to understand unless you’ve had to make the choice between the lesser of two evils. When the Körbel’s first fled to Britain, they left Albright’s aunt Margarethe and her husband, Rudolf Deiml, seeking visas. Of their two daughters, Dagmar (Dáša), age eleven, and Milena, just seven, only Dáša managed to leave one of the rare kindertransport organised to rescue young children. She returned to Czechoslovakia five years later to search for her father on news that he was still alive. However, it was a false hope: of the twenty five members of Albright’s sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Theriesenstadt (Terezín in Czech) between 1942 and 1945, none survived.

In the final chapter of his masterpiece on Europe, Post War, the late Tony Judt wrote about the “unconscious” of history, and the strange ways that the memory of the Holocaust, denied, repressed, but unforgettable, had emerged to haunt the second half of the century. Few American politicians have faced those ghosts in the way Albright has. In an era when smart theoreticians talk about appeasing Europeans coming from Venus, and warlike Americans coming from Mars, the former Secretary of State is one of the few of her generation left in the US who can directly understand the complexities and emotions of the last century beyond the facile oppositions of intervention and nonintervention, neo-cons and isolationists. It was probably Albright’s personal understanding of this that made her such an effective mediator in the wars of the Former Yugoslavia, especially during Bosnia and Kosovo. It also makes her one of dying breed.

Two years ago, revisiting the house she lived in London during the Blitz, Albright walked back down the stairwell to the basement where she’d sheltered from German bombs, only to notice the green paint on the ceiling had not been repainted in seventy years. With many parts of the dark continent of Europe still unrefurbished, or covered over by the thin cosmetic gloss of paint, her account of how a democracy flourished and then disappeared under two reigns of terror is not just a book for historians.

Peter Jukes

Peter Jukes is an English author, screenwriter, playwright, literary critic and blogger. His most recent nonfiction book is The Fall of the House of Murdoch (2012).

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